“If you look at the field beside the road and you see merely the generic ‘meadow,’ you’re less likely to care if it’s bulldozed for a strip mall than you are if you know that those tall, flat-leaved spires are milkweed, upon which the monarchs have flown two thousand miles to feed, or if you can name sailer’s breaches and purslane, lamb’s-quarter, or the big umbrels of wild carrot feeding the small multitudes. Isn’t the world larger and more valuable, if you know what an umbel is?” –Mark Doty
Do you know what an umbel is?
A cluster of blooms, sprouting from a common center. A collection of stems, radiating outward. A manifestation of indeterminate inflorescence, which is itself a delectable morsel of a phrase, one of the most luscious utterances that my tongue has tasted, recently.
“Know the ways of the ones who take care of you,” Robin Wall Kimmerer implores, “so that you may take care of them. Introduce yourself.” Introduce yourself to milkweed and purslane, brown thrashers and barred owls. Know what an umbel is. This knowing opens into a form of love that changes us, she instructs. This is what roots sacred bonds. We defend, protect, and celebrate what we love. If we know and love the milkweed, the goldenrod, the endangered Georgia oak, we are more likely to care if the meadow, or prairie, or forest is being bulldozed for strip malls, for mansions, for cop training grounds…
In addition to being the one to teach me what an umbel is, Mark Doty is a poet, an AIDS chronicler, a gay man who spent time in the same Iowa town I am queerly making home in. His writing emerges from the devastation and grief of the AIDS epidemic, including the impending death of his lover, in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Doty writes of “beauty that does not disguise the wound, but reads through to the lack it marks.” He will turn 70 later this summer. He describes love as “a gateway to the world.” He imagined, and still does, a future for queers beyond brutality, beyond shame.
It has been a strange Pride for me, this year.
During my local Pride weekend, the third weekend of June, I was en route to a family gathering, driving through a part of the south gleefully criminalizing my existence, where I found more baptist churches and guns and blue line flags than visible queerness. I did, however, find a gay campground in rural North Carolina, and set up my tent next to some older dykes who laughed and danced and listened to music later into the night than I was able to stay awake to witness.
The weekend before, my parents joined the parade moving through our state’s capital city, while I returned home from a magical weekend in a neighboring state which included my first turn at a lathe, and my first queer, public dance party, with beloved friends, since 2019. (We masked; we were care-full; it was not without risk; the queer collectivity resuscitated me.)
The weekend before, I was trying to claim Pride, stretched out in the sun, topless, next to my beloved, at the gay beach in another neighboring state, when my phone started exploding with urgent interchanges from the annual United Methodist gathering back home. Untruths and manipulations. Tactics of fear, intimidation, isolation, control. One of the colleagues who signed one of the complaints against me was reiterating his insistence that he did so to “protect me,” and that was far from the worst of it.
In 2023, 558 anti-trans bills have been introduced in 49 states, including the state I live in. 82 have passed, and 365 are still active–laughably asinine yet terribly cruel, deadly–attempting to bulldoze our public existence. Blocking access to basic healthcare and education, desperate attempts to obliterate a shared knowing of how large and valuable trans and queer lifeworlds are.
Arkansas was the first state in the US to criminalize gender-affirming care for youth and young adults. For two years, trans youth and those who love them have been terrified of losing access to care that opens pathways of living and thriving. This terror, and the real risks animating it, are not gone, but this week a judge struck down this ban, calling it what it is: discriminatory, a violation, undermining the health and well-being of those who it claims to protect. I saw this news while with family, and did not take for granted what I wish I could: they were celebrating with me.
Queer liberation theologian Marcella Althaus-Reid invites us to make theology indecent, to “do theology without underwear,” to remember that our sexual stories are sacred stories, and that the longing for a lover’s touch, the longing for sacred connection, and the longing for liberation share more in common than not.
This year, this Pride, I’m missing the marches, the collective movements of enfleshment that root me in lineage, that remind me and reground me in trancestral courage, creativity, resistance, defiance, joy, revolutionary love… (I am missing, less, the parades that can feel performative, detached from radical roots, abolitionist dreams, flamboyant queerness, insistent, holy indecency…) But hear me, loud and proud and yet alive: Queerness saves my soul; transness enlivens my spirit. I love these forces of feral freedom, of delightful divergence, of persistent, transgressive pleasure.
Yesterday I talked with my youngest niece, a little lovebug, about my “abolish the police” sticker, and heard her say, hours later, “we don’t need police if we take care of each other.” I gave my oldest niece, a voracious reader, a “banned books” pin that she wants to put on her bookbag, which she will take to school in a state that recently banned education about sexual orientation and gender identity. I held hands with my little nephew, wearing his older sister’s bathing suit because he wanted to, like he wore his “fancy clothes,” a rainbow dress, to church on Mother’s Day, without an utterance of hesitation, resistance, pushback, or question from any of those who know and love him best.
This week, this sacred convergence: Pride. Juneteenth. Summer Solstice. Fighting for our lives. Celebrating our aliveness. Bearing witness to beauty–Black, trans, queer, earthly–that does not disguise the wounds. Believing more in our freedom than in the institutions and forces that are incompatible with it. Drawing near to the energies that give and sustain life. Regrounding in the sacred wisdoms of collective liberation: “we keep us safe;” “we do this ‘tis we free us.” A cluster of blooms. A collection, radiating outward. Indeterminate inflorescence. Today, I’m going to teach my niblings the word “umbel,” with a hunch that they already know what an umbel is.
Anna Blaedel (they/them) is co-director and co-founder at enfleshed, where they tend to the theopoetic intersections of spiritual, academic, and activist engagement. Anna chaplains University of Iowa students, and is a doctoral candidate in Theological and Philosophical Studies at Drew University’s Graduate Division on Religion. Waking before dawn, lingering in poetry, being an aunt, retreating to the woods or their basement woodshop, tending the garden, sharing silence, and feeding people delicious food are some of Anna’s favorite things.